Judge Wilford Carter stepping down after 21 years on the bench

By By Johnathan Manning / American Press

The longest-serving judge in 14th Judicial District Court will step down at the end of the month.

Judge Wilford Carter, one of the first black judges elected in Calcasieu’s state district court, confirmed he is retiring on Oct. 31. He said he mailed the appropriate paperwork on Wednesday.

“My legacy, I hope, would be a judge that was fair and treated everybody the same and wasn’t influenced by anything but the law and the issues before me,” Carter said.

Since Carter is stepping down midterm, the Supreme Court must appoint a replacement.

Often considered controversial, Carter said he made decisions and set bonds as he believed was fair, not to appease the public.

“I tried to be impartial, be my own man and make my own decisions,” Carter said. “I’m not one that’s influenced by public opinions or politics or power. I just pretty much do my own thing whether you like it or not and let the 3rd Circuit reverse me if I’m wrong.”

Carter, 65, and Al Gray were the first black judges elected in the 14th Judicial District Court. Carter has served as judge for 21 years. He said his assistant for 21 years, Bernadette Simon Robinson Hunt, was also the first black judicial assistant in the 14th Judicial District.

Carter said he never intended to serve more than one term when he first ran in 1992.

Now, he said he plans to return to private practice.

“I started out as a lawyer, and I’d like to complete my days of work as a lawyer,” Carter said. “I enjoy practicing law. It’s a challenge to me, and I’m just as nervous now as I was when I was first elected judge to go back after 21 years and practice law.”

He said he will be an “old-school lawyer,” accepting any cases that come through the doors of his office.

“My ego has been served enough, and I’d like to now go and practice law, using some of the ideas and experience as a judge to help people in the community by representing them in litigation and disputes.”

If he gets tired of practicing law, he’ll go fishing, he said.

He said he continued to run for judge “because I enjoyed what I was doing.”

He said he doesn’t believe he’s changed much over the years.

“I came here and I had hair; I don’t have hair now,” the often animated and always colorful Carter said. “That’s the biggest difference ... Everything else is the same. I’m the same person, and I have the same philosophy.”

Chief Judge David Ritchie said he must send a formal request to the state Supreme Court asking it to appoint a replacement for Carter. Ritchie said he has already contacted the Supreme Court, which assured him it will act quickly to fill the vacancy.

A special election will have to be called because there is more than a year remaining on Carter’s six-year term, which ends Dec. 31, 2014, Ritchie said.

Carter dropped out of high school to join the Army, but was awarded a diploma from Washington High School in 1967, he said. He received a degree in accounting from McNeese in 1972 and a law degree from Southern University in 1975.

Carter was the second black Lake Charles city councilman, elected in 1977, and served as the council’s first black president in 1982. He was also the first black state representative from Southwest Louisiana, serving 1984-1992. He chaired the civil law committee in 1987.

As a state representative, Carter worked on legislation that created a black district for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal. In total, he’s been elected 12 times to the various positions, he said.

“The judge has served as a unique example of achievement,” said Shawn Papillion, Carter’s bailiff for nearly three years. “Imagine what a figure like Judge Carter has been to kids who did not ever dream or could not ever dream about being a black judge.”

Papillion said Carter has served as a mentor to many who have worked with him, including Heidi Williams, a former clerk who now serves as a municipal court judge in Houston.

“While I may have my detractors in the affluent of the community sometimes, the people who came in front of my court, I think overwhelmingly they had a satisfactory, at least a fair, experience,” Carter said.

Carter isn’t ruling out a return to public office in another capacity.

Controversial stances

Carter made headlines for the bond amounts he set, as well as for dust-ups with the District Attorney’s Office, law enforcement officers and other judges.

Carter said he made decisions he believed were right.

“It’s not a popularity contest,” he said.

The bonds Carter set were often lower than those of other judges, but Carter said he set bonds according to his philosophy.

“While it’s not popular to believe a person is innocent until they are proven guilty, I really believe that and I’m pretty stringent on holding the state to its burden of proof,” Carter said. “I don’t believe that bonds are punishment, so my bonding philosophy is a reasonable bond in compliance with the constitution of our state.”

Carter said he got along well with his fellow judges, although they tangled when Carter wanted to handle family cases, a case that went to the Supreme Court.

Carter said he “fought tooth and nail” to handle the cases and thinks it’s ironic that he has handled one-ninth of family court cases since January.

“Eventually the court came around to my thinking,” he said.

Carter said that while he has had disagreements with the District Attorney’s Office, he has liked by prosecutors who have entered his courtroom.

“I treat a district attorney like I treat any other lawyer,” Carter said. “He happens to be the state’s attorney, but he’s still another lawyer and that’s how I treat him in court.”

Carter said that although he had disagreements with some prosecutors, he harbors no animosity.

“I’ve been here 21 years and I’m sure the prosecutors are not going to mourn my leaving, and indeed that’s OK with me,” he said. “It’s not that I’m going away. I’m going in a different role; I will still be practicing law. I look forward to working with prosecutors. They are fine people; I just have a different opinion on some issues with a couple of them.”

When asked for comment about Carter leaving, District Attorney John DeRosier said, “I will miss him dearly.”

Carter believes his position affected his sons when they had run-ins with the law.

Carter’s son, Jay Norris Carter, served time in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the late 1990s.

“I think prosecution in some cases may have been warranted, but the aggressiveness of the prosecution was primarily because of who I was,” Carter said.

He said he’s not the only person in the public eye whose children have had brushes with the law.

“I think I’m a good judge, some people might not agree, but I’m not responsible for what other people think,” Carter said. “But I don’t think my family ought to have any effect on how they’re dealt with based on what they perceive me to be.

“I don’t treat people like that. I don’t care who it is, I treat everybody the same, whether they’re a public official or not a public official, whether they’re rich or poor, they’re all treated the same in my court.”